by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC
Late last night the AP released video of Bishop Herrod, in his own voice, saying that the helpline told him he was not allowed to call, his hands were tied. He then goes on to say that he passed this information along to the next bishop. This is a helpful piece of information to have as previously it was unclear what he was told. It helps explain why the bishops did what they did. But I also think it’s fair to point out that this 9 min video is intended to give an emotional punch. Every visual image, piece of music, and word spoken is carefully chosen to drive home the same emotional point. It’s actually rather well done if that is the goal. But they certainly are not going to include any information that takes away from their point, including things the bishop may have said that show a wider view of what happened. We get one short quote from him and nothing else. It is also fair to mention that an Arizona Grand Jury took up this question last year in case GJ21-0072. They asked, “Did the bishops do anything legally wrong?” and while their conclusions are secret, we can observe that as of today the bishops have not been charged with any crime.
Also, by way of further correction it should be noted that no states have a law that makes reporting illegal, even by clergy.
Earlier this week, the Associated Press (AP) released an article telling the story of abuse that two young girls suffered, and the role that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints played in that story. I’m a licensed mental health therapist and an abuse survivor. I spend hours every week working with traumatized clients who have also been through abuse. This story is not like my story, nor is it like most of my clients’ stories. It is the most horrific story of abuse I’ve ever heard. In addition to reading the AP article, I spent hours reading the court documents online. I figured that if I’m going to be reacting to this story, I needed to hear the whole thing. I won’t lay out the details here, and I do not recommend that most people go read the court documents, not if you value your sleep anyway.
For members of the church, part of what makes this story so awful is that the conclusions the reporter came to don’t show the whole picture. You know this intuitively, even if you can’t articulate what all of those nuances and differences are. But despite the problems with this article (and there are problems) it is worth reading. My own personal opinion is that every leader in our church could benefit from reading that story – not because he gets it 100% right, but because he is offering us an outsider’s view on a very tricky area. There are two extreme responses to this article that can easily be found online. One is “circle the wagons” to protect the Church’s reputation. The other is to concede without critique the conclusion that the Church helps abusers continue abuse. Both are unhelpful. Instead, I am suggesting a humble reading of this article from an outsider’s perspective to see what can be learned or viewed in a new way. This reporter (Rezendes) has a long history of solid reporting on sexual abuse issues. He is portrayed in the movie Spotlight about how he helped break the story of abuse in the Catholic Church while he was working for the Boston Globe. He’s not a random, unknown person sitting behind a keyboard somewhere making things up. We would be wise to listen and learn. So, what can be learned?
How Did We Get Here?
This is actually an old case, at least the criminal portion. The details of this case have been known for quite some time. For reference, the father mentioned in the article is already dead, the mother has already been sentenced to two years in prison. She has served her time and been released. So why is it coming up now?
There is another unrelated abuse case in West Virginia. No one knows any deep level of detail on that case because the records are sealed by the court. However, someone leaked those sealed documents to Rezendes, the reporter. This current story is not about the West Virginia case, it’s about a case in Arizona, but what the WV documents do is, supposedly, explain in a deeper way how the Church tells bishops to handle cases of abuse. Rezendes used those documents to fill in the gaps on what happened in the Arizona case. The Arizona court records don’t really spend all that much time talking about the so-called “help line” provided by the Church to help bishops with these issues. It’s mentioned and moved on from pretty quickly. Apparently the West Virginia documents go into this more deeply. But because they’re sealed there is no way to verify this. Once the reporter put the information together about the helpline that he learned, he applied it to the Arizona case.
So, What Is The Helpline?
I will tell you what I know and what I think. I don’t speak for the Church, or for FAIR, these are my understandings and opinions. First, as stated in the handbook, the helpline exists to help bishops know how to support victims and there are three issues at play here.
Legal Aspect. Because our bishops are volunteers, chances are that the average bishop has never needed to know what specifically to do when abuse is reported. Laws differ in every state in the US, as well as around the world. They legitimately need help in knowing how to follow the laws of their specific state or country. This legal help is given not to shelter abusers or protect the Church, but so that local leaders can know how to best meet their legal responsibilities. All of this is for the sake of the victim.
Forensics. Several people have asked, understandably so, why it’s an attorney answering the helpline and not a therapist or social worker. Wouldn’t a social worker know better how to help the victim? No. Let me explain why. When a call is made to the helpline it’s often because a potential crime has been committed. Therapists and social workers are not trained in forensics. We’re not trained how to collect or handle evidence that may be used in a legal case. And in fact there is history here – anyone remember the McMartin Preschool case? A family ran a preschool and was accused of sexually abusing the kids in their care. Instead of choosing an interviewer that is trained to collect evidence from very young children, they allowed social workers to interview the children. Without meaning to, the social workers ended up collecting unusable information because they led the children toward saying certain things. Therapists and social workers can cause great harm here, and should not be the one on the phone who is essentially collecting the first grab of evidence.
Inexperience. Perhaps a few Bishops have careers that have trained them to know exactly what to do in a situation like this, but most do not. I remember when I was a young therapist and had to place my first call to report child abuse. I’ve done many, many of these calls since then and can easily pick up the phone and know what to say and do. But the very first time I was clueless. At that time the state where I was living allowed 48 hours before a report had to be made. I took every one of those 48 hours to seek supervision, consultation and legal advice. The question was never “should I do this?” the question was, “how do I do this?” I think that if I, a trained therapist, needed help to know how to fulfill this responsibility, then it’s entirely reasonable that a volunteer bishop would too.
So Why Didn’t They Report?
Things get messy here. I think everyone, the victimized family most of all, would feel so much better if the bishops (there are two in this case) had been told to call the police. To most people that seems like the obvious answer. Let me offer one explanation as to why it’s not as obvious as it seems.
Every state has different laws about mandatory reporting. There are three basic types of laws. 1) You must report abuse, no exceptions. 2) You must report abuse, but there are exceptions. 3) You should not report abuse because it’s a breach of privacy. Arizona is one of the twenty or so states that have a law similar to option 2: you must report, but there are exceptions. My understanding (again not speaking for the Church) is that the bishops were told of this exception and the decision was made to take advantage of the exception. This was not done in an isolated phone call to the help line, but was part of a much bigger strategy to get the family help by having them report on themselves, or at least have the mother report. A report was never made. (On the other hand, in a recent case in Oregon, a lawsuit was filed against the Church by the wife of a man who was convicted of abuse after his confession was reported to law enforcement.)
So The Bishops Just Sat On Their Hands While Kids Were Being Raped?
No. Absolutely not. Not only is that nonsensical from the perspective of what a bishop of the Church should be doing, but there is no evidence that this is what happened in the court record. Both bishops actively worked with this family to try and get them to report themselves and to help the children. When those efforts failed, the father was excommunicated. To say that the bishops didn’t care is a complete mischaracterization of the help they tried to give. It’s easy to look back and judge those bishops, and most of us deeply wish they’d done something different, but to say they didn’t care is a complete fabrication. In addition, according to the court records, the assertion that the Church tried to hide the abuse is fiction.
For Worried and Triggered Members
I’m writing this article on Saturday afternoon and thinking of the many kind and faithful members who might be sitting in church tomorrow morning feeling upset and triggered over this. Some of them are upset by the news itself, and some are sucked back into their own trauma of abuse. I know the pain of sitting in a church pew wondering where comfort can be found. It’s to those members that I want to speak now.
Our church does not enable abusers, hide abuse, or turn a blind eye to the suffering of an abused child as policy. Have there been mistakes (some heartbreaking)? Yes. But there is no conspiracy here to abuse children and protect abusers.
Every faithful Christian who has experienced abuse asks the same questions: Where was God? Does he even care? Where was the Church? Do they even care? I’ve wrestled these questions to the ground more than once and there are two answers that have helped me. Maybe they will help you, too.
- Jesus Christ is the Suffering Servant. Go read Isaiah 53. Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer to this degree. His mission was to descend down into our suffering, bear our burdens as if they were His own, and then to rise out of that suffering to serve others in their suffering. If you are struggling with all of this (and who isn’t?) then Jesus Christ is there, ready to do what He does best: serve you comfort, mercy, and hope as you suffer.
- Abusers do not get to win. No matter what someone did to you, they do not get to take away your birthright which is: You are deeply loved by heavenly parents whose hearts are with you. Don’t let your abuser steal that. They might steal innocence, trust, confidence, self-esteem, and more, but they do not get to steal your spiritual birthright from you. You are deeply wanted by Heavenly Father and this church.
This entire story is terrible. Beyond terrible. There may be things the Church ends up doing differently because of this case, and there might not. But the rumors of the Church enabling abusers and ignoring the screams of children are unfounded.
Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.